Breaking Into The Industry is a weekly interview series that speaks with video game professionals from all across EA. We hope that by sharing how some of the industry's biggest (and smallest) players got their start, you can learn how to do the same.
What’s your name and job title?
My name is Brian Bartram. I’m a Combat and Control Designer at Visceral Games.
How long have you been in that role?
About a year and two months.
So, the job title makes it seem obvious, but what exactly does a Combat and Control Designer do?
In the design department at Visceral there are two types of roles: Level Designer and C&C Designer. Other studios usually call the person in this role a “Systems Designer.” Whereas Level Designers focus on individual sections of the game (the levels, missions, quests, etc.), the C&C Designer focuses on systems that span the entire game. For example, in Dead Space 2, the systems would be things like Weapons, Telekinesis, Stasis, Enemies, Puzzles, etc. These are usually the responsibility of the C&C Designer. It’s my job to make sure that a weapon isn’t over or under-powered, that a creature isn’t too tough, or that a puzzle isn’t too difficult.
Who comes up with the ideas for the systems themselves?
The company as a whole, really. At the start of a project, when we’re brainstorming for new ideas, the whole design department is involved. However, in a game studio we’re surrounded with bright, creative people and we’d be crazy not to ask for their input. So, the initial seed of an idea can come from anywhere – an artist, a programmer, a designer, a producer, an executive, the cleaning lady, fans, friends – we just kind of throw everything up on the wall and see what sticks.
And the “Controls” part of your title. Does that refer to the way the buttons on the controller map to in-game actions?
It does. The method by the which the player controls the character – every bit of how it feels, the responsiveness, the rumble, how to access the menus and user interface – is dealt with by a C&C Designer. When coming up with ideas for systems (A.K.A. “game mechanics”) I try to imagine what it would feel like to hold the controller and use the system. The more vividly a C&C Designer can “play the game” in his or her head, the more smoothly development will go, because it’s a method of prototyping that takes up very limited resources. If you have to see a system fully realized before you can judge it, then there’s a high chance you’ll be throwing away a lot of work if it doesn’t work.
Gotcha. So, could you walk me through a project you’ve worked on? How do you get from beginning to end with a system process?
Wow, that’s an epic request. I can give you a general overview of the process with reference to some particular systems. It’s rare to be on a project from the very start to the very end, and systems take wild routes to get from their birth to what you see in a finished game. You’d be surprised how many games didn’t even start out in the same genre they ended up in.
That works. Let’s go general.
Well, the process is generally something like: Pre-production (brainstorming, blue sky), Production (“making the game”), Playtesting (“making the game good”), Finalizing (“making the game not crash so much”).
In pre-production (which, it is frequently said, is the designer’s favorite part of the game), we come up with the ideas for the game. If it’s a sequel to an existing game, there’s a big framework to start from, but you still have to come up with fresh ways to present familiar characters and mechanics. If it’s a totally new game, then wow, you’ve got your work cut out for you. It’s no small task to define a new IP, much less create a new character with new mechanics that truly work, and create a fresh experience that works for the mass market.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any specific pre-production stories to share, as they’re almost all currently in development. I once worked on a Transformers PSP game and designed the “drainage culvert” level. I was fresh out of school and had been accepted as a Junior Designer at Savage Entertainment. I actually did a mockup of the level in 3D Studio Max, and the artists made the final level out of my original mesh. It was an amazing feeling to see that happen, although there was also some heartbreak involved in the process. This was where I learned about budgets and the technical difficulties of putting all the content you want into a level without breaking it.
So, during the production phase on this Transformers project, I built an incredible gameplay experience (at least in my Junior Designer mind), but once we started adding in all the art and cinematics and animations, my level was overtaxing the PSP’s hardware and my vision had to be scaled back. And back. …and back some more. The final experience was a shadow of my original intention.
When that same game got to the playtesting phase, I watched gamers play a toned-down version of the level I’d originally imagined. Playtesting inevitably uncovers parts of the design that just don’t connect with all players, and adjustments need to be made to prevent progress blocks.
Even during finalizing, some art bits had to be toned down and textures had to be reduced. So, looking back, it was a great way of seeing the whole process. Lots of learning from Transformers PSP. But since then, I’ve been on some great teams and have seen the process done well – to great result – and I’m very proud to have been a part of that. Games like The Saboteur, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Dead Space 2.
So it is a common issue for games to start off with these huge ideas and then get scaled down?
Oh, definitely. You should have seen some of the levels and puzzles in Dead Space 2. Some players would love for us to have kept them harder, longer, and more complicated. But when two or three people in a ten person playtesting session just can’t get past it, we have to “nerf” it. But that’s just a playtesting example.
Games are frequently a type of benevolent struggle between Design and Production. Design wants a giant game with all kinds of cool stuff in it. Production wants a game that will actually ship. When they compromise, things have to be cut away, reduced, and scoped down. But this process should ideally distill a game to its core – the real foundation of a game. For game mechanics, these become the known “pillars” of the game – the three to five mechanics that will be used frequently and which are often mixed together to form the bulk of the game’s experience.
What were you doing before you became a C&C Designer?
I was a Senior World Designer on Star Wars: The Old Republic at BioWare Austin, and before that I was a Senior Game Designer on The Saboteur at Pandemic. Before that, a Game Designer at Savage Entertainment. I got that first role as part of an internship program offered through the school I was going to at the time – The Art Institute in Santa Monica.
What did you study there? Did it end up being relevant to your current work?
I studied Video Game Art and Design. It was all useful in my particular role, since a designer frequently works with other disciplines to bring everything together. I learned a lot about art and animation at AICLA, so I can speak the language of artists and animators more fluently. I also have a degree in Computer Science from the University of Georgia. When I was there, I learned that I wasn’t really good at programming. But as a result of doing the work I can speak more fluently to programmers, and I’m comfortable with scripting (which, if you aspire to be a designer, you should really be able to do at at least a rudimentary level).
That leads me to my next question, actually. I was going to ask what advice you have for people who are currently in college and considering a C&C Designer career.
The best advice is to give it a try. Download a game engine and try building your own levels, modifying existing games, and creating original content. There are many communities online for people who are creating games of all types. Game engines like Unity, Unreal, Torque, and Panda3D all make good starting places.
Creating multi-player maps for games is another channel. Some games allow you to create “user generated content,” and I advise aspiring designers to give them a try. Another thing that many System Designers do in their spare time is create board games, card games, and other “analog games.” I highly recommend Stone Librande’s speech from GDC entitled “15 Games In 15 Years.” [Editor’s Note: You can read the transcript online.]
So you’re a gamer, then?
Oh, yes. I don’t know any game designers who aren’t gamers at heart.
What are you playing right now?
Hrmm… Skyrim, Saints Row: The Third, Minecraft, Bastion, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, Infamous 2, Uncharted 3… I play at least a little bit of every major release, if I can. But I’m surprised at how addictive Skyrim has been. I’m not even a big fan of fantasy games.
I actually went back to SimCity 4 and got addicted to that game all over again as well. Between Origin and Steam I’ve been playing a lot more PC games lately.
What about your favorite game (or series) of all time?
Wow. That’s tough. But I’d have to give it to Valve. The Half Life series was, and still is, what defines “video game” for me in many ways. Valve is definitely up there among the game design gods, and Half Life will be remembered for a very long time. Half Life 2, in particular. I replayed it recently and was still marveling at how good it looks and how well it holds up after all this time.
Sounds like you’ve always been a gamer.
Totally. Back to the Atari. I was lucky to be born with games and to be able to experience them growing up. I was born in 1974. Between my brother and I, we owned every one of the major consoles. But I’m not as crazy devoted as some – I’ve lived a very balanced life and wouldn’t consider myself a fanatical gamer.
So how did you end up in the industry? Was it always a goal of yours?
It’s more like I knew that I enjoyed technical problem solving and also loved being creative, but I wasn’t artistically talented in the traditional sense. I think at one point I realized that I wanted to “get paid to play with expensive toys.”
When I took a game design class at AICLA, we had a project to make a board game. It was the most fun I’d ever had in a college class, bar none. At the time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue 3D modeling for film or games, but that experience made it clear. My position in the games industry combines my three favorite things in a career: technical problem solving, artistic creativity, and working in a team with a strong devotion to a goal.
That’s a wrap! Thanks for your time, Brian.
Is there a specific video game job you'd like to know more about? Let us know in the comments! Plus, check out last week's interview with Technical Director, Jerimy Abner, for more insight into the industry.